To say that I grew up in a protective bubble would be an understatement. After my father died when I was eight years old, my mother had to find a place for us to live. Under the guidance of my dear sweet Uncle Jack she located a small but quite nice home in a neighborhood in southeast Houston known as Overbrook. At the center of that little subdivision was a Catholic church and a school that provided education through the eighth grade. Later a Catholic high school would be added to the mix. The church and schools would become the main focus of my youth as I grew from a child into a seventeen year old heading of to college.
The scope of my world was quite small indeed, guided by a routine that included daily sessions in the classroom, Sunday mornings at church and Friday night visits to my grandmother’s house. On Saturdays we cleaned the house, did the laundry and went to the grocery store. Little varied from one week to the next and it felt quite safe and secure just as my mother hoped it would be. Nonetheless through the influence most especially of my teachers, I found myself longing to know more about the realities of the world. So when I attended the University of Houston I began to realize just how little I actually understood about people and perhaps even myself.
I admittedly became a bit of a rebel, at least in my thoughts. I began to question just about everything. When my mother had her first psychotic break and the responsibility of her care fell to me, I made a quantum leap into the realities of the world. I clearly saw that everything that I had always believed required far more complex thinking than the simplicity of the life I had once lived. My horizons widened and I felt a feverish need to break away from the narrowness of my experiences.
I married quite young which was an act of rebellion in its own right. Luckily that decision proved to be one of the best I ever made as I realized that in my husband I had truly found a soulmate. Together we began to navigate the adult world, all the while growing together through the incredible challenges of our twenties that included not just caring for my mom when her mental illness returned again and again, but also enduring a frightening health scare for my husband that threatened his life. I suppose that I was a twenty something going on fifty after those times.
Along the way we lived in an apartment in Pasadena, Texas, a blue collar town known for a somewhat conservative bent. It was there that I encountered people who were totally unlike those I had known in my school days. Most of them were only educated in the basics, non-readers who escaped from high school as soon as it was possible. Nonetheless I soon enough learned that they were well educated in how to survive. Most of them possessed an uncanny common sense and trade skills that baffled me. They worked with their hands and were unafraid of getting dirty. The men in particular often came home from work with grease on their faces and dirt on their clothes. They were honest, forthright folk who enjoyed life and I found that I really liked them.
There was one woman, however, whom I avoided. She seemed a bit too brash for my taste. I don’t ever recall seeing her wearing shoes and her bare feet were often in dire need of a pedicure. More often than not, she paraded through the apartment complex with tight tops that exposed too much of her breasts. All the while a cigarette dangled from her lips as she openly used the foulest language that my virgin ears had ever heard. Without ever actually speaking to her I had decided that I did not like her.
Then came the day that I witnessed spousal abuse up close and personal. A group of us had been sitting in the courtyard talking and having a good time when we heard screams from a nearby apartment. Through the open window we heard the husband threatening to kill his wife while their children were crying for help. We saw him punching his helpless victim until she was down on the floor. We sat watching the scene unfold in frozen silence, not knowing what to do. There were no cell phones back then so nobody thought to call 911. It was an horrific situation that stunned and frightened us.
From seemingly nowhere came the woman that I had quietly shunned. As always her feet were bare and her clothing was more appropriate for an evening at a bar. The cigarette was there as well. She ignored all of us as she ran toward the apartment where the children and the battered woman were screaming for help. As she sprinted she tossed her smoke to the ground and bounded up the stairs like an Olympic runner. She pounded on the door with her fists and using language that would have made anyone blush, she demanded that the husband open up immediately or she would break the window and come inside on her own.
We were mesmerized by her courage and soon enough the door opened as the children walked out one by one followed by their mother. The woman who had rescued them hurled a final unspeakable insult at the batterer and rushed the ragged crew to the safety of her apartment. As she passed our little group of neighbors she glared at us as though she despised us all. I felt humbled and ashamed.
After that incident I made it a point to befriend that woman. I found her to be one of the most interesting persons I have ever known. She was an artist of great merit. She had traveled extensively around the United States. She was a fabulous mother and a woman with a huge heart. She laughed at herself for her bad habit of smoking and promised again and again that one day she would finally quit. She was an enigma in many ways, but the one clear thing about her was that she was unswervingly kind and generous.
She eventually moved away. While we promised to stay in touch I knew that she had the soul of a rolling stone and that it was unlikely that she would stick with her plan of writing and calling frequently. Sure enough the contacts became fewer and fewer until finally one of my letters to her was returned.
I don’t know where she is now or if she is even alive, but I think of her often. She taught me one of the most important lessons of my life which is to suspend my judgements and preconceived notions about people until I actually know them. Good people come to us in many different packages. Brilliance is not alway found in a degree or a certain kind of dress. Habits and mannerisms do not provide us with the essence of an individual. Sometimes the most wonderful people among us don’t look the part.
When I finally settled down into a career in teaching I remembered my friend. I understood so well the importance of valuing each individual no matter how different he or she appeared to be. I was able to respect the father whose body was covered with tattoos and piercings because I saw that he cared so much for his son. I set aside judgement of students and their environments. I found the good in people and nurtured it. My dear friend taught me how to do that and for that I am grateful to her to this very day.